World

A three-ring circus in Finland: Soldiers of Odin, clowns, and asylum seekers

TAMPERE, Finland — A surreal political circus is wheeling its way through the frosty streets of Finland’s third-largest city.

In one ring is the Soldiers of Odin, a far-right, leather-clad vigilante patrol named for a Norse deity, which has taken upon itself the task of protecting Tampere from the 1,200 or so people seeking asylum here from Syria, Iraq and other places.

In another is a troupe of clowns who skip through the streets carrying lollipops, feather dusters and toilet brushes, mocking and sometimes confronting anti-immigrant groups, including the soldiers. The clowns call themselves the Loldiers of Odin, and have emerged on the scene in the past few weeks as champions of multiculturalism.

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And so it goes as this industrial town — which some call Finland’s “capital of comedy” — and much of Europe grapple with the influx of newcomers from the Middle East, Africa and beyond.

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It started with the Soldiers of Odin, a group that began in Kemi, a town on the fringe of Lapland near the Arctic Circle that saw thousands of asylum seekers coming through from the Swedish border in late 2015. Now the group is organized in as many as 25 cities in Finland, and a Facebook group for the soldiers has been formed in Norway.

In Tampere, members of the group patrol the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods three times a week, though, so far, their only contribution to law enforcement has been to call the police after encountering a drunken Finn.

“We are a patrol group looking out for the safety of people, the safety of women,” said the group’s local leader, a 37-year-old electrician who spoke on the condition that he be identified by only his first name, Tony.

Enter the Loldiers, to the accompanying tunes of a decrepit accordion and with one clown portraying Odin as a bearded buffoon in a dressing gown and a plastic horned faux-Viking hat. The clowns first rambled into the soldiers’ path on a recent weekend patrol, honking horns and singing nursery rhymes.

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The next Saturday, the Loldiers tried to repeat the trick at a nationalist rally. The police were not amused and arrested two of the clowns for disturbing the demonstration.

Jussi Jalonen, a local historian who studies extreme right-wing movements, said the clown troupe was employing the art of parody in an attempt to make anti-immigration fervor and the vigilante patrols appear ridiculous.

“They are basically a performance group who are protesting — peacefully and by the means of comedy — against the extreme right,” he said.

The clowns declined to break character to give interviews, though the clown who was arrested at the demonstration said afterward that he had made the police laugh when he was taken to the station. “It was lovely,” the clown said of his arrest.

Some of the anti-immigration demonstrators dismissed the clowns as anarchists. They said that just like in Batman’s Gotham City, the heroes are the vigilantes, and the clowns are the villains.

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“They are trying to provoke the Soldiers of Odin to hit them, so they will take the blame,” said one of the anti-immigration protesters, who was waving a flaming torch and identified himself only as Jarkko, a 36-year-old construction worker. “But the Soldiers of Odin have kept their cool and have not responded to their provocations.”

The Soldiers of Odin were not visible at the demonstration, though some of the marchers said some members might have been there but not in their trademark leather jackets with images of Odin on the back.

The Soldiers of Odin say they are undaunted by the arrival of the clowns, promising more marches when the snow melts in the spring and when new arrivals are expected.

“They are not giving us trouble,” said Tony, the leader of the Tampere division of the Soldiers of Odin. “They are making trouble for themselves.”

His small vanguard of 50 soldiers emerged in Tampere over the past few weeks, playing off resentment of the elite, distrust of the Finnish news media, frustration over growing unemployment and fear prompted by a sudden influx of foreigners — all coming alongside accompanying reports of sexual assaults and terrorist attacks across the Continent in 2015.

Some members of the group, including the organization’s leadership in Kemi, according to reports in the local newspaper Aamulehti, are committed neo-Nazis, and some members hold criminal records for domestic abuse.

“They write that we are Nazis, but that is not true,” Tony said. “The group is not a Nazi group. The group is a patrol group.”

The 1,200 new asylum seekers seem to be well aware that they are the subject of considerable controversy and fear. “Some of them are afraid of us,” said Ahmed Ramzi al-Bayati, 22, an asylum seeker from Iraq. “When they see us, they step aside.”

But he said he has nonetheless been made to feel welcome by volunteers and instances of local hospitality.

“I think they are afraid for their country,” he said of the Finns. “They don’t want anyone to demolish it after what they did to build it. No one wants that. But if they see the good side of us . . . ,” he trailed off and smiled.